As we understand in psychology, unless there is some kind of developmental delay, infants demonstrate the rudimentary beginnings of empathy whenever they recognize that another is upset and they show signs of being upset themselves. Very early in their lives, infants develop the capacity to crawl in the diapers of others even though their own diapers don’t need changing.
Though I recognize empathy as a human condition, I also understand that through the process of socialization, others often teach us to inhibit our empathetic natures with messages like “Don’t cry,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Mind your own business,” “It’s not your concern.” We learn the stereotypes of the individuals and groups our society has “minoritized” and “othered.” We learn who to scapegoat for the problems within our neighborhoods, states, nations, world.
Through it all, that precious life-affirming flame of empathy can wither and flicker. For some, it dies entirely. And as the blaze recedes, the bullies, the demagogues, the tyrants take over filling the void where our humanness once prevailed. And then we have lost something very precious, but I believe something that is not irretrievable, not irrevocable.
As an educator, I present material in all my classes from multiple perspectives and multiple identities.
For example, in October, I ask students to research Native American Indian viewpoints of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day and compare and contrast these with what they learned during their elementary and high school years; to travel through the month of December in the shoes of a non-Christian who does not celebrate Christmas and does not view Jesus as the anointed son of God; to write in a journal the feelings, emotions, and thoughts when simply imagining walking through the campus and home to family while holding hands and displaying mild forms of public affection with someone of the same sex; imagining themselves as a trans* person having to use the bathroom of the sex assigned to them at birth; walking down the main street of town as a fully-grown 4’6” adult or as someone with a consuming burn scar across the face and scalp; and being approached by police officers as a 16th-year-old unarmed African American male who is simply hanging out with friends.
I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides on the macro level and bullying on the micro level perpetrated throughout the ages. Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotypes and scapegoating entire groups, while other people or entire nations turn away, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the atrocities.
Empathy, however, has always been an antidote to the poison of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and scapegoating, and to bullies and demagogues who take power and control. Empathy is the life force of our humanness, and Bob Bennett, for one, led his life by example.
May Bob rest in peace as we resurrect the empathy in us all.